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2018-02-21

The Man Behind Ghibli That Doesn't Get Enough Respect



YouTube essayist Steve McCarthy continues his series on Studio Ghibli with this excellent video retrospective on Isao Takahata. I am always thrilled when anyone in the West acknowledges the great Paku-san, who remains a cult figure in relation to Hayao Miyazaki. I am especially thrilled to find a film scholar who not only understands the director's career, but also criticizes it as well. For true fans who enjoy grappling with film art, this is great viewing.

McCarthy follows Paku-san's career from Toei to the present day, highlighting Horus, Prince of the Sun (of course), his World Masterpiece Theater trilogy of Heidi-Marco-Anne, his collaboration with Miyazaki on Future Boy Conan, his pre-Ghibli movies Jarinko Chie and Gauche the Cellist, and continuing through the Studio Ghibli era, discussing each film at length and sharing his likes and dislikes in equal measure.

I would offer one critique on this video essay. Heidi, Girl of the Alps is described as a series that was "greeted with indifference", but the series was instead a blockbuster hit in Japan, drawing enormous television ratings and becoming a pop culture phenomenon. In addition, the series was successfully exported around the world, blazing the trail for the anime revolution of the 1970s. Whenever I visit Bogota, Colombia, I can always find a classic World Masterpiece Theater series on the local TV stations. In fact, Future Boy Conan was playing last month. In many ways, Heidi has always remained the touchstone in Takahata's and Miyazaki's careers.

Also, McCarthy echoes the common belief that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Takahata's final movie. This is not exactly true, as the director continues to work and prepare on potential projects, but has openly admitted the difficulty in finding financial backers for any future movies. Coupled with his age, and the odds are against him. But he is not officially out, not yet, nor has he announced any retirement. True artists never really "retire," as we have seen once again with Miyazaki.

Overall, great video. I was honestly surprised to see my name and writing in a clip, part of my "Objective Style" series that I wrote at a Minneapolis Dunn Bros coffee shop back in 2007 (after another one of my many computer accidents). The Grampa Simpson cameo is also a real hoot.

2018-02-20

The Miyazaki "Problem": A Retrospective



There are many YouTube videos that examine the life and career of Hayao Miyazaki. This one is easily the best I've seen. It examines his entire career from Toei Doga to Studio Ghibli, citing the director's major touchstones like Horus, Prince of the Sun and Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Lupin the 3rd, and showing how his filmmaking style evolved into the Ghibli era and the present day.

Steve McCarthy doesn't wallow in hero worship or drown in "member berries"; instead, he offers an honest critique of Miyazaki's work, praising his strengths but also highlighting his weaknesses. I find myself largely in agreement with his assessments. It's good to have an honest discussion on popular culture instead of merely pandering to fanboys.

This is an excellent video that all Ghibli Freaks will enjoy watching. You may even be inspired to track down Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli works such as Horus, Heidi or Future Boy Conan. You'll be glad you did. Great jorb!

2018-02-19

Greatest Hits: Join the DTM Newsletter and Receive a Free Ebook

Greatest Hits: Join the DTM Newsletter and Receive a Free Ebook

The DTM Newsletter is a weekly newsletter that I publish every Wednesday. It features essays and news updates from yours truly, including the latest events on our book publishing empire. We continue to add new subscribers every week, and if you are among them, you have my thanks.

Everyone who subscribes to the newsletter receives a free ebook. Previously, that free gift has been the 42-page zine Bocanada. However, now that my KDP Select contract has ended, I can offer you one of my full-length books instead, Greatest Hits: An Anthology in Four Volumes.

Greatest Hits is an anthology of essays and stories taken from four other books, hence the title. Two of the books are now available, Pop Life and Zen Arcade: Classic Video Game Reviews. The two remaining book titles are still in production. It was an interesting experiment that I wanted to try out, and to be completely honest, it was my original intention to make this the "free book" for the mailing list. I just got greedy at the last minute and put all three titles up for sale.

Now Greatest Hits is back where it properly belongs, as a free anthology for all the new subscribers. As for the existing ebook titles on Amazon, I will soon be publishing on Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo as well, and I will run a "free" promotion for a while.

For Studio Ghibli fans, Greatest Hits includes 26 essays that belong to the "Conversations on Ghibli" book project. One longer essay about the 1984 Nemo movie project was written specifically for the project and has never been published on Ghibli Blog.

I always liked the Greatest Hits book. This is a great book. There's so many entertaining essays on movies, music, videogames and life. It's got the best cover design of my three titles, and looks great in paperback.

If you have not yet subscribed, please join today and I'll send you a copy of this terrific book. Here's the link:

Join the DTM Newsletter and Receive a Free Ebook

2018-02-14

Future Boy Conan: The Videogame (PC Engine CD-ROM)



Hayao Miyazaki fans have been screaming for videogame adaptations of his classic animated movies for years. Thankfully, our prayers have been answered...in Japan, at least. This is Future Boy Conan on the PC Engine CD-ROM, which was released in the West as the Turbografx-16 and TurboDuo. It is based, obviously, on the 1978 Miyazaki television series, which is just about the greatest cartoon series ever made.

Unfortunately, neither the anime series nor the videogame ever made it to our shores, but thanks to the magic of import shops (and internet downloads, cough, ahem), we can enjoy Conan in all his greatness.

I will freely admit that, strictly on the standards of videogame criticism, Future Boy Conan is a somewhat standard, almost rudimentary side-scrolling action-platformer. Its layouts and level designs are nowhere near the genre's greats, and if you're expecting the next Super Mario or Sonic, you'll be greatly disappointed. The game largely exists for players who wish to relive the TV series, by walking from Cut Scene A to Cut Scene B. For these reasons, this game will probably only appeal to fans of the series.

 That said, fans will have a terrific time. The many cut-scenes use the in-game graphics engine to depict its scenes, instead of merely playing compressed MPEG video clips. This means that graphics are extremely clean, sharp and colorfully detailed. The animation is a touch limited but very impressive, and the programmers did an exemplary job in recreating many of our favorite Future Boy Conan scenes, including the title sequence ('70s anime always had the best opening credits).

Hudson Soft made a strong push to promote the PC Engine/Turbografx library on Nintendo's Virtual Console, including a number of CD titles. I do wish that Konami (who now owns the Hudson name and library) would continue the good work and bring us more games, especially the many CD titles that never left Japan. Like the Sega Saturn, the PCE is an endless treasure trove for classic gamers at a time when videogames and anime were practically joined at the hip. Today's most game designers are trying to mimic Hollywood blockbuster movies. They should mimic Miyazaki anime instead.

Just tell me you wouldn't go completely gaga over a videogame version of your favorite Studio Ghibli movie just like this one. Indie developers, assemble!

I previously wrote a post about this game way back in 2010, but only shared a few screenshots. Now we can watch an extended gameplay video that really shows you the guts of this wonderful little gem.

Riffs: Princess Mononoke (Movie and Book)




Here is one of the more interesting riffs in the Ghibli canon. In Princess Mononoke, we see a character named Kaya who serves as a romantic interest (of sorts) for Prince Ashitaka. The relationship is shown shown in brief moments, but she clearly loves the boy and is devoted to him. As he is cast out of the village and sent on his quest, she gives him a crystal dagger as a symbol of her memory.

Later in the movie, Ashitaka meets San, the "Princess Mononoke", and falls in love with her. He gives her his crystal dagger as a sign of his devotion to her. Later, during the dramatic climax, San lashes out in anger by striking the same dagger into Ashitaka's chest. In the end, while the two share love for one another, they both realize that they cannot live together, and must stay in their separate worlds (don't kid yourself; when the girl you are dating says "I need my space," you're never seeing her again).

Now here's where things really get interesting. The village girl Kaya is actually a recreation of the heroine from Hayao Miyazaki's original 1980 version of Mononoke Hime, which was radically different from the eventual movie. It's far closer to a traditional fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast meets Feudal Japan. In that story, Mononoke is a large cat who takes on a human wife, the "Mononoke Princess."

Incorporating the storybook princess into the movie is a stroke of sly brilliance. The romantic heart of this movie involves a love triangle, where the heroic prince must choose between two women who carry the same name.

Most Miyazaki fans in the West had never heard of the 1980 version of Mononoke, created as a series of storyboards for a planned animation project which was scuttled, then published in the 1983 book Hayao Miyazaki Image Boards. A standalone storybook was published in Japan in 1997 to coincide with the movie, and was eventually published in North America by Viz Media in 2014.

2018-02-11

New GKIDS Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray: Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Cat Returns, Tales From Earthsea

My Neighbors the Yamadas
Tales From Earthsea
The Cat Returns
Pom Poko

At long last, all of the Studio Ghibli feature films are now available on home video in North America. On January 16, GKIDS released My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Cat Returns; on February 6, they released Pom Poko and Tales From Earthsea. The collection is now finally, thankfully complete.

When I began writing about Studio Ghibli in 2003, only a handful of movie titles were available on home video, either on VHS or the new DVD format. Even with an Academy Award for Spirited Away and the support of Disney, new catalog releases remained elusive. For many die-hard fans, it seemed as though expensive importing would be the only option for building a complete Ghibli movie collection.

Now, under the direction of GKIDS, that journey has finally reached its end. We have everything! We have all the Ghibli features from Nausicaa to The Wind Rises. We have Omohide Poro Poro and Umi Ga Kikoeru. We even have Yoshiyuki Momose's excellent 2002 short film Ghiblies Episode 2, which I honestly never believed we would see on our shores.

Like the other catalog titles in their reissue campaign, GKIDS has provided proper English subtitles to all four movies (Pom Poko suffered from a "dubtitle" track on the Disney Blu-Ray). They have crafted new cover and slipcase designs, and offered new bonus features where possible.

Of these newest reissues, My Neighbors the Yamadas is my clear favorite. I absolutely loved this movie ever since I first saw the Japanese DVD over a decade ago. Its zen watercolor design is a revelation, and the loose episodic structure felt like a template for any future comic strip adaptation, and reminded me a lot of the classic Peanuts cartoons. Years later, I was fortunate enough to see the movie on the big screen, and it was a visual revelation, with colors and audio that absolutely stomped the limited DVD format.

Yamadas has never been a popular movie among Ghibli fans. I've never understood why this was so. Perhaps it's just too different, too quiet, too reflective, too dependent on comic strip humor, too dependent on its original Japanese soundtrack (Disney's dub cast tries hard, especially Jim Belushi, but it just doesn't work in English). Hopefully, the new Blu-Ray release will win over the fans. This movie looks and sounds fantastic.

I'm also looking forward to picking up the other three titles. Pom Poko is another Paku-san near-masterpiece that has been strangely overlooked by Western fans. It's a very dense and complex movie, one that feels like three or four smaller movies smashed together in a giant Katamari ball of happiness and gloom. I enjoy those kind of movies. They play out like classic rock double albums, where indulgence and sprawl are celebrated as virtues. There isn't a double album that couldn't have been made "better" by trimming the fat and creating the perfect single album. But that would be missing the point, and wouldn't be nearly as interesting. Pom Poko needs its weirdness, its cultural mythology, its comedy and tragedy and nods to documentary films.

The Cat Returns and Tales From Earthsea are considered minor works in the Studio Ghibli canon, but these are rare instances of new and inexperienced directors trying to find themselves and test their limits. Both of them are probably better than you remember, and will benefit greatly from the Blu-Ray format, with richer colors, cleaner textures and more involving audio. Besides, Cat Returns has cats, which will be a hit with social media addicts, and Earthsea involves Goro Miyazaki openly fantasizing about murdering his father and being cursed to live within his endless shadow. I'll take that over talking emoji poop and Poochie wannabes any day.

So that's the end of the long journey. You now have all the Studio Ghibli features. Grave of the Fireflies remains under Sentai Filmworks, and The Wind Rises remains under Disney. Eventually, GKIDS will get the rights to those titles as well, and put the entire catalog under one roof. Heck, maybe they'll really surprise us and announce they're importing Ghibli ga Ippai Special: Short Short, or turn their gaze to the vast pre-Ghibli eras of Miyazaki and Takahata. At this point, anything is possible.

2018-02-10

Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro Sees New Audio Commentary



In 2004, Lupin the 3rd scholar Chris Meadows took inspiration from a Roger Ebert essay on DVD audio commentaries, and decided to record his own commentary track for Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki's 1979 action-comedy-caper classic. In 2017, he returned once again with a revised and updated version to share with all the fans.

The idea of fan-generated audio commentaries was a hopeful one, but for various reasons never really caught on. The only real example of this model is Rifftrax, a movie commentary website curated by alumni from Mystery Science Theater 3000. YouTube and podcasting are similar in many respects, but the idea of a full-length audio companion to your favorite home videos remain an idea ahead of its time.

Whatever. Meadows performed a minor miracle with his 2004 Cagliostro commentary, and his new 2017 commentary is that much better. It is a must for all fans of Lupin or Miyazaki or movie fans in general.

You can download Meadows' Lupin audio recording on his website, where he also includes a lengthy essay discussing the development of this project, as well as the excellent (and must-have) Discotek Blu-Ray release. I highly recommend that you download your copy...and maybe consider recording a fan commentary track of your own.

P.S. I first received word about this project last summer, but failed (once again) to post the news on Ghibli Blog for many months. I promised Meadows that I would finally publish it tonight. In addition, I also sent him free copies of my ebooks (Zen Arcade, Pop Life, Greatest Hits) as my personal thanks.

2018-01-23

Ursula Le Guin Has Passed Away

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science-fiction and fantasy writer, passed away today at age 88. Her family made the public announcement this morning but did not disclose a cause of death.

Generations of writers have been inspired and provoked by Le Guin's writings. I certainly count myself among them, although I would only be, at best, a casual fan. The diehards will be more than happy to share their tales, and you should seek them out in the coming days and months.

Ghibli Freaks will remember the 2006 feature animated movie Gedo Senki, titled Tales From Earthsea in the West, and directed by Goro Miyazaki in the midst of a very public feud with his legendary father. Le Guin was personally approached by Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki to create an animated adaptation of her acclaimed Earthsea novels, promising that the father would pass the torch down to his eldest son, but carefully oversee the production and treat it like one of his own works. Things unfolded quite differently in the ensuing months, and Le Guin was left feeling slightly betrayed and alienated. Thankfully, a written letter from father Miyazaki repaired the breach, and the two were able to make their peace.

Fans of the Studio Ghibli movies will have a unique view of Earthsea because of the 2006 movie, famously uneven, uncertain, and overwhelmed by the ongoing family melodrama. The same fans will also observe that Goro-san showed himself in that movie, through its troubled central character, and through his interpretations of the novels. Like the father, the son did not create a "faithful" movie adaptation, which is what is expected today, but used the original work to explore larger themes and wider discussions. That some of these discussions became very personal and painful is a tribute to the artist's courage and determination.

When I think of Ursula Le Guin, I always think of an inner strength, a tough-minded resilience. She was strong and wise, after all, because she had to be. She practiced her art at a time when female sci-fi and fantasy authors were all but unknown. She forged her own path, sang in her own voice. She persisted. And so she fought, scrapped, struggled, succeeded, and became a living legend.

It is not an easy thing to become an author. It takes an almost obsessive stubbornness to create, to write and edit, to publish, to promote, to suffer acclaim and rejection and silence, and then go back to the writer's desk to go through the whole thing again. You must believe in your own worth, your own voice, just as you must believe that an audience is out there, waiting to hear your tales.

A giant has passed from our world. Her spirit is now on the next journey. We will miss her greatly, but we will wish her Godspeed. Thank you.

2018-01-05

Happy 77th Birthday Hayao Miyazaki

Happy 77th Birthday Hayao Miyazaki

Today is Hayao Miyazaki's 77th birthday. Here's wishing a happy day with many more fruitful years to come. The director is busy working on his next "post-retirement" feature animated movie, which should be completed within the next three years. His newest animated short film, Boro the Caterpillar, is expected to be screened at the Ghibli Museum in Japan later this year (and, sorry, there are no plans for foreign distribution).

This photograph of a young Miyazaki is from the production of Horus, Prince of the Sun between late 1965 and early 1968. According to the documentary movie Yasuo Otsuka's Joy in Motion, the aspiring animator was 25 years old at the time of this picture, which would date it at 1966. Other than the hair color and lack of beard (which he didn't grow until the 1990s), he looks essentially the same. Imagine spending an afternoon in his company, when he was in the prime of his youth, full of energy and vitality and overwhelming ambition. At age 77, he still possesses more energy than most filmmakers half his age.

Personally, I'm glad that Miyazaki is back, even if only for a little while longer. Some artists should never stop creating, the relentless march of time be damned. As long as he can still hold a pencil, he should draw. The world needs his art. There are far too many loud, obnoxious and stupid cartoons crowding our movie screens, but there is never enough of Miyazaki. There is always room for more.

2017-12-29

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan Memorial Box (LaserDisc)

Future Boy Conan is the 1978 television anime series created and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Spanning 26 half-hour episodes, it tells the tale of a group of young heroes and their adventures in a post-apocalyptic world. It perfectly balanced the cliffhanger serial style of Miyazaki's younger years with the social commentary of his later works such as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. If you're a fan of Castle in the Sky, then you'll love Conan, which is definitely cut from the same cloth.

This LaserDisc box set was released in Japan some years ago, and like most classic anime series for the format, it is now a prized collector's item. You can find copies on Ebay easily, but expect to spend a lot of money. Even if you don't have access to a LaserDisc player, you can enjoy the packaging, as well as the complimentary art book, which goes into detail on the series, including a number of production art stills and screenshots.

Everything is in Japanese, and there are no English subtitles on any of the discs (the only English subtitled version of Conan at present is an online fansub copy). This will be a barrier to many Western fans, and we are reminded once again that so many of Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli works remain beyond our reach.

Why is Future Boy Conan not available on our shores? I suspected licensing (read: money) is the cause, as Nippon Animation owns the rights and do not appear willing to deal with anyone. Then again, we don't know if anyone has made any formal offers. The challenge in importing an anime series from four decades ago is quite high, as a new dub soundtrack would have to be produced, and the fanbase is far too small to cover the costs. Anime fans are typically teenagers and college students, and they have more than enough on their plate from the present; they don't have much time or patience for the "old" stuff. That's okay. You and I were the same when we were their age.

At some point, somebody will have to bite the bullet and bring this great series to our shores. Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have a solid cult following today, and that fan community is only growing over time. Sooner or later, they're going to discover that there's life beyond Totoro and Spirited Away, and movies that were made before Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa. I'll bet that if you sit down any Miyazaki fan and have them watch an episode, they'll become diehard fans of Conan just like you and me.

This reminds me, I really need to finish that Future Boy Conan blogathon that I began way back in 2011. By the time I reached the eighth episode, I was hit by writer's block, and couldn't find anything further to say. I need to finish that one up, certainly for the Ghibli book project and for posterity.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays From Ghibli Blog


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our friends and followers from Ghibli Blog. Here's hoping that you're having a great time, that you got all the presents you wanted, and that the weather outside isn't unbearably cold.

Here's Totoro hanging out at the bus stop again. He doesn't have to go anywhere, he just likes hanging out for fun. Even he is a bit surprised at the arctic air that's blasting through North America right now. He's getting a full plate of a traditional "Minnesota Winter". That's okay, things will warm up soon. At least he has some snow to play around in.

Don't forget to also visit our indie publishing site, DT MEDIA, and consider purchasing or downloading one of my books. I'm already working on the next two manuscripts, including the mammoth "Conversations on Ghibli" book project that is seemingly never finished. Oh, well, whatever.

2017-12-14

Spirited Away Academy Awards Screener

Spirited Away Academy Awards Screener

Ghibli fan Molly DeWolff asks about this impressive little piece of Studio Ghibli memorabilia:

Hi! 
I found an academy screener copy of Spirited Away at my local library book sale and wondered if you could tell me a little bit about it? After relatively thorough google searching, your tweet about the same copy back in June of this year (though the one I found is NOT sealed) is the closest I came to finding anything like it. Is a copy like this collectible or worth keeping? Can you tell me where I can find more information on it? 
Thanks! I appreciate your help.

I shared some photos of this VHS Spirited Away screener on my Twitter page earlier this year. I found it on Ebay, which means one lucky Miyazaki fan now has this prized item in their collection. I'm a little envious, and I'm wondering right now why I never tried to buy it when I had the chance.

Movie "screeners" are commonly used in Hollywood during the awards season. Free copies are distributed to voters and judges, usually along with a nice gift basket, press kit or other promotional items. It is the same as any home video release, only without the endless commercials and with minimal packaging. Also, as this was distributed at the end of 2002, the Disney producers released on videotape. It's crazy to imagine that people were still watching movies on VHS barely only 16 years ago.

Right now, as I'm writing this post, a local Chicago TV station is broadcasting Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy classic The Producers. They're playing an old videotape. You can really hear the tape hiss in the background, the details are smudgy, the colors are bleeding everywhere, and the picture is cropped...but it still looks pretty good. I'm having a fun time. Heck, at this point, I'd feel very tempted to pop in this Spirited Away VHS and make a big bowl of popcorn.

Anyway, if you ever find any screener VHS tapes, hold onto them. They'll be worth something someday. Maybe. Whatever. Sentimental value is priceless.

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